“Secret Dead Men”

An excerpt from the novel
by Duane Swierczynski

The year is 1976. Meet Del Winter, hard-boiled dick. But Winter isn’t like the other shamuses you find here at THRILLING DETECTIVE. For one thing, he’s back from the dead. For another, he has a strange ability: Winter can absorb other recently-departed souls and store them in his brain. Victims, criminals, hopheads, sex fiends, accountants as long as they’ve taken the deep six fairly recently, he can collect ’em. He calls them the residents of his “brain hotel,” and they aid his investigations with either info or talent. They’re also great drinking buddies.

This ain’t all for fun and games, though. Winter is a dead man on a mission: To cripple the shadowy crime organization known as “The Association,” who had Del killed in the first place. They lopped off his fingers with wirecutters, they smashed his beloved Underwood typewriter to bits, they messed up his hair part. Now Del is back for revenge, and looking for anyone who can help him- dead or alive.

As the novel opens, Del hears about a government witness named Brad Larsen who knows Mondo Dirto about the Association. The bad news: Larsen and his beautiful wife have just been executed. The good news: Del is able to collect Brad’s soul. And Brad is willing to ‘fess up what he knows right after Del finds his killers and brings them to justice.

What’s even more of a kick in the pants: Since discorporated souls lack the ability to pay $100 a day plus expenses, Del realizes he needs to do some additional P.I. work for the living.

* * * * *

Despite the amazing powers that my body seems to possess-the ability to change my face, to swallow a human soul, to inventory and sustain countless unique intellects inside my own brain-I still have trouble managing a dime. To properly conduct a murder investigation, you need thousands of dollars. Right now, I had a little over $900 in my checking account. My MasterCard was nearing its limit, and this was the 9th card I’d glommed. Not every soul I absorbed had proper credit. If I wasn’t careful, I would be under investigation myself.

So, I was forced to accept some extra work. A couple of years ago, I’d hung out a separate P.I. shingle under the name “Stan Wojciechowski” in a variety of outlets-from racing newspapers to legal journals, and eventually, as a backup vendor for the internationally-renowned Brown Investigative Agency in L.A. (That was a real coup, considering this stuff was just a backup gig. I’ve met guys who would sell their left lung to be on Brown’s back up list.) But no matter the outlet, every call got flipped over to an answering service in Sherman Oaks, California. I called the service every day to skim through requests-mostly to decline, sometimes to keep contacts alive.

Today, however, I really needed something. I cracked open a can of Budweiser and dialed the phone. The gravelly-voiced girl on the other end of the line answered.

“Hey Mr. Mojo Wojo! How are you, my man?”

“Uh,” I said. “I’m fine. I’d like you to list my telephone calls-service requests only, please.”

She ran through the job prospects and locations. Between each she paused to audibly pop her gum. I stopped her on the fourth request.

“Where was that again?”

“Philly, Mr. Wojo. This one was passed down from Brown. An attorney named Richard Gard needs you to fly out there later this week.”

I remembered my earliest clue: You might want to watch the bicentennial. Something about it felt right. Could Loogan and Farrell have some Philly scam running that was keeping them away from Vegas all this time?

“Did he mention the particulars?” I asked.

“No. Just that it’s a security consultation.”

Easy stuff. Lawyers needed muscle, too, every so often. It would surely give me enough time to check out the city, and look for Loogan, all while rebuilding my bank account. “Phone Mr. Gard and tell him I’ll be on the next available flight.”

“You got it, handsome. Hey-you ever going to take a job out here in L.A.? I’m dying to meet you in person.” She was forever flirting with me, this Sherman Oaks girl. I didn’t understand it. She’s never seen me before.

“You never know,” I said.

* * * * *

I hailed a cab at Philadelphia International, and handed the driver the address: 1530 Spruce Street. The Sherman Oaks girl had found a place for me-an art school friend of hers knew of a building that catered to college students and other transients. No lease required; you paid by the month. Since it was now the end of the school year, there were plenty of furnished rooms available. The building was actually quite nice, but old. A stone date-marker read “1870,” and it looked it. Probably the most recent renovation had been the row of mailboxes in lobby.

As promised, the landlord was waiting outside for me with my keys. He didn’t speak much English-or else he didn’t care to. I handed him an envelope containing $450-a month security, and a months’ rent, up front. He handed me two keys-one for the front door, one for my own apartment. The front door was tagged with a green plastic overlay and a tiny, yellowed sticker that read “LOBBY” in shaky handwriting. Just in case I was confused. The landlord left without a word.

I pushed all of my things inside, then carried my wardrobe (that is, two plastic trash bags stuffed with clothes) up to my apartment, and prayed nobody would steal the rest of my stuff while I was gone. I keyed in. The first room of the apartment was tiny-a stove and sink shoved into one corner, a desk and chair in another, and a battered houndstooth couch placed beneath two greased windows that, if cleaned properly, would afford me a great view of a gray brick wall. NEWLY RENOVATED, FURNISHED STUDIO APARTMENT, RITTENHOUSE SQUARE VICINITY, HISTORIC BUILDING. Yeah, Washington slept here all right. And left his crap all over the place.

I opened up a door leading into the bedroom and saw that it was furnished with a toilet, bathtub, sink, and mirrored cabinet. Confused, I went back out into the first room and looked for another door. There wasn’t one, except for the one I used to enter. After some poking around, I discovered that the houndstooth couch was actually a day bed. How efficient-a living room, dining room, kitchen, study and bedroom, all in one, low-priced space! Only now did I realize why the landlord never gave me a tour; the walk upstairs would have taken longer.

I went back down to the lobby and thought about leaving, but instead opted to carry the remainder of my personal belongings (two cardboard boxes) up to my fully-furnished closet. Halfway up, I caught my new reflection in the plate glass covering a fire extinguisher. It shocked me, even after all these months. This face was rugged, yet boyish. Nature’s way of saying, I am harmless, but please do not touch. This face, I remember thinking, will serve me well during this investigation.

At this particular moment, however, it did not. Halfway up the second staircase, I met a woman wearing a college sweatshirt and faded jeans. She was carrying a shoulder bag stuffed with papers and books. “Pardon me,” I said, as mechanically as possible.

“You’re pardoned,” she said, smirking. Her eyes went to my shoes and back up. “You need a hand with that?”

“No, I’m fine. Thank you.”

She skirted to one side, and I mimicked her, unintentionally. We repeated the mimic. She started laughing. I just frowned.

“My name’s Amy Langtree. I guess you’re moving in.”

Yes, but my friends just call me Moving. I thought about saying it out loud, but it probably best not to get caught up in a conversation.

“Yes. Uh… My name is Del.” This was my new alias: Del Winter. Glommed from a fake set of credentials I’d bought.

“Like Del Shannon, right?”

“Sort of,” I said, trying to squeeze past her.

“Aren’t you going to shake my hand?”

I started to shake, but one of the boxes slipped, and a semi-auto clip slid out of top. Damn it. I quickly dropped the box and scooped it up.

“Del, you need help.” Amy grabbed the first box and started up the stairs. She looked back at me, smiling. I looked up and returned a queasy version of a smile.

“No lip. C’mon. What apartment number?”

I told her, full knowing this was not going to sit well with the other souls.

* * * * *.

One thing I failed to mention about the tenants inside of my brain: They tended to be highly cooperative just as long as I didn’t appear to have a life outside of my job. But the minute I tried to resume a normal life, i.e. settling down with a nice girl, finding a job with benefits-anything diametrically opposed to playing ringleader for this bizarre little tenement-they were all over me.

Oh, the souls had it good, too. No puzzles, no worries, no bills. They could lounge in their quarters, or eat and drink to excess, or read books and paint. The only thing I ever demanded was a little bit of their time-no more than 30 minutes, usually-every so often.

I’ve already mentioned Doug, Jason and Harlan (God rest his corpulent soul). There was also Frederic, who had been a bookie when he was still alive, and stole money from the till to pay for his girlfriend’s Tijuana abortion. The Association caught him, and chopped off his arms. (Inside the brain hotel, he replaced them with a set of ripping, hairy guns capable of tearing a Manhattan phone book in half.) And there was Mort, who had been a Association accountant who’d turned state’s evidence, but died of a heart attack a few days before the trial. He was a tough collection, let me tell you. Had all sorts of ideas about the afterlife, being a Jew and all. And, certainly, there are the tenants who predate me. (After all, I was soul-collected like the best of them, the only difference being that I eventually rose to this management position.) There was George, who no longer talked-just oil painted war scenes. Benjamin, who sang drinking songs to himself, usually loaded on a bottle of brain-gin he’d cooked up for himself.

Most intriguing, though, had to Jason, who claimed to be a soul from the future, somehow trapped in the past when he’d traveled through time to prevent the end of the world in 2072. He’d go on and on about the future, so much so that the other tenants began to treat him like a pariah, so Jason learned to shut up. Every so often, when a new recruit entered the collective, he’d start up again, as he did with me. He’d tell me that my investigation ultimately didn’t matter a whit. Las Vegas would, he claimed, turn into Disney World before the year 2000. No more Association-at least as we know it, he said. But I, too, began to ignore him, and eventually Jason would shut up. For a while.

* * * * *

Amy Langtree kneed the door open and walked in. I followed, hunched over, still trying to casually stuff gun clips back into the box. She dropped the box she was carrying on a table in the corner, careful not to knock over the telephone that sat there.

“So what do you do for a living?”


“Yes-your job?”

“My job,” I repeated.

She squinted at him. “Let me guess. You hang out all day mimicking people’s actions and speech.”

I told her my new cover. “I work for the Philadelphia Electric Company.” Well, at least it was a chance to try it out. See how it works on a nobody. Somehow, I didn’t think the tenants would buy this an excuse to talk to her. If anybody happened to be in the lobby screening room this particular moment, I was sure to hear an earful when I returned later.

Amy nodded, and walked over to me. “You in the collection department?”


A cartridge I’d forgotten about was sitting on top of the box I was holding. Amy picked it up and pointed it at my face. “You no pay, I blow brains out?”

“Oh,” I said. “Oh, no no no. Hah. Hobby. I mean, it’s a hobby of mine. Guns.” I looked at her. “Keeps nosy neighbors from asking too many questions.”

Amy’s eyes widened for a moment, and then she laughed. “Damn it, Del, you do have a sense of humor. A sick sense of humor, but I’ll take it. I was beginning to worry about you.”

I smiled-uncomfortably-then turned to drop the box. I could feel Amy giving me the once over. What was it with her? Most women, upon meeting a strange man carrying two boxes of firearms into his tiny studio apartment, usually spin on their heels and hit the road. Fast. But not her. Her curiosity was piqued. “What kind of guns do you have? I used to have a cop buddy who showed me quite a few of his police-issue numbers. They were really something. You got single or double action?”

Damn, the soul tenants were really going to hate this line of conversation. Nice cover, “Del,” they’d say. Why not just show her the evidence box and bomb gear while you’re at it?

“Uh, Amy, this is really not a good time for me. I’m not feeling too well, and I’ve got to finish-“

“Yeah, yeah, you’re just getting settled. Speaking of-where’s the rest of your stuff? Need any help?”

This time I was prepared. I’d already planned the story in advance: I had just moved with some work files and necessities; the electric company was having my furniture and personal affects sent later. (Of course, I really didn’t own anything else. I made a mental note to pick up a few pieces of junk to avoid suspicion.)

Amy seemed satisfied with that explanation. “So do I get a rain check?”

“On what?”

“On the gun talk.”

“Sure… sure.”

Amy whipped out a pen from her backpack and started to write on the top of one of my boxes.

“Here’s my number. I only live a few flights up. Nice meeting you too, Del.”

“Nice… you, too.”

I showed her to the door, then turned around to expel the air from my lungs. I looked around, pressed my palms to my eyes, then walked into my new bathroom.

* * * * *

I uncapped a bottle and dry-swallowed two Bufferin, cupping water from the faucet. I looked at myself. Then I opened the cabinet to put the bottle of aspirin away, which created a double-mirror effect with the mirror on the door behind me. Another image of my face appeared.

“New friend?” the other face asked.

This soul’s name was Paul After. Over the last few months we’d been working pretty closely. A relatively recent acquisition; ex-employee of the Association. And a real hard-ass. Paul had been a hired assassin who’d been double-crossed and turned state’s evidence. The evidence? Not much. Just some tax nonsense he’d stumbled onto-a couple of cooked books-and he’d thought he could use the purloined info to bargain for higher rates. The negotiations ended when the Association sent their lawyer to the meeting with a pistol. Blammo. That was the end of Paul. And the beginning of our intimate relationship.

So naturally, Paul had good reasons to want to work with me. He wanted the Association burnt like toast. Plus, he possessed talents that could only help me. He was Grade A professional muscle. It was important to keep him happy, to maintain his enthusiasm for the investigation. I could go around pissing on everybody forever.

“Look, Paul I made her go away,” I explained in as calm a voice as I could muster. “You saw that, right?”

“Yeah, I saw. I saw you flirting like mad with her.”

“Point is, I made her go away.”

“I made her go away,” he mocked. “Come on. If I’m supposed to do my job-the job you gave me-it’s important that you don’t get involved… with anybody. Raises too many questions.”

“Don’t worry about it.”

“If you want action, use one of these brain-hookers. I’ve gotten used to them”

The phone rang in the living room. I didn’t remember plugging in a phone.

“You should answer that,” Paul offered.

I closed the mirror, and Paul disappeared. Only I remained, trembling at his own reflection. The phone rang again.

I picked up the phone and looked off, distracted.


“Yes,” a voice said. “My name is Richard. I believe you are an associate of a man named Stan Wojciechowski?”

“I am.”

“Are you available to speak this afternoon?”

“Of course.”

“Then meet me at the Rittenhouse Hotel, Room 1223, at 4:00 p.m. You won’t require any kind of equipment. Just yourself. Is that clear?”

“Sure. See you then.” I hung up, picked up an ammo clip and started to twirl it around my fingers. It slipped away and clattered on the floor.

Paul laughed.

* * * * *

Here was my conundrum God, now’s that a perfect word. Conundrum. It’s a confused word all in itself. Not easily pronounced. Difficult for small children to spell and grasp. Even has a downbeat rhythm to it, like two shots on a tom-tom, followed by a single dull thud of a bass drum. Con-un-drum. (Cymbal crash.)

Anyway, here was the problem: I hated doing freelance P.I. work. Great money, usually mindless work, but it was too much of a distraction. Too much additional information got in the way of my real investigation. So it was easier to have Paul After play the part of hired dick, leaving free to do the real work at hand.

I was always in control, mind you. I could watch what was happening from my special screening room within the brain hotel lobby. And if Paul did something to jeopardize the mission, I could crack the reigns, drag his soul back to the brain-slammer, the carry on myself. Of course, to the casual observer, my body would fall unconscious lose control of its own, uh, bodily functions. Needless to stay this was not something I liked to do often.

* * * * *

Paul dressed my body in a gray suit with a red and gold tie. Then he slicked back my hair, and shaved me. Nicked me three times.

“Why are you wearing my face?” he asked me, looking into the bathroom mirror.

“I’m not,” I replied. “You’re just seeing your face. Happens a lot when you first take over a live body. Actually, you’re looking at is the face of a recent murder victim. I’m tracking down his killers.”

“So why the victim’s face?”

“I’ve found that it can help speed the investigation.”

“Who was he?”

“A man named Brad Larsen.” I said. “He was also set to testify against your former employers.”

“Was he a good-looking guy?”

“Reasonably,” I said. “Hey-don’t worry. You’ll be fine.”

Paul looked again, squinting. “Weird.”

“It happens to everybody in here. It’s too much of a shock to see your own consciousness in another man’s face. Or so the theory goes. I saw myself for a long time, until I came to terms with everything.”

Paul nodded, and dabbed his cheeks with a hand towel.

“Step aside,” I said. “I need to take care of a few things.”

He did, and I resumed control of my body.

* * * * *

I arrived ten minutes early, so I took the opportunity to stroll around the square for a few minutes. Rittenhouse Square. This was a well-heeled neighborhood, despite the hippies playing guitar in the park. At the appropriate time, I surrendered myself to Paul again. He coughed, then ran my fingers through our hair, smoothing it. The he walked us the hotel.

Meanwhile, I stepped into the lobby of the brain hotel, where I could see everything as if it were playing on a movie screen. I suppose it wasn’t a lobby in the strictest sense; it more closely resembled an old-fashioned movie theater. (Which is what I’d modeled it after when I took over. The Mayfair, my favorite boyhood theater.) There were no rows of seats or popcorn stands, but there was a screen, and a front desk, and a few comfortable red-velvet couches and deep, plush rugs. If only there were a movie theater this comfortable. I’d never leave.

Watching Paul operate my body was an education in itself. Every motion was studied, whereas mine were automatic, unthinking. Take entering the hotel. If I were personally performing this gig, I would have marched right, walked up the front desk, asked for Richard Gard’s room, then taken the elevator to the correct floor. A straightforward, let’s-get-to-work approach. But not Paul.

Paul walked into the hotel bar first. Slowly, as if he were too bored to be doing anything else. The bar was right off the side of the lobby; a dark, oaky-looking room. While I didn’t exactly know what Paul was thinking-it was more like I possessed deep intuition about Paul’s intentions, rather than direct knowledge-I knew he was checking for signs of Gard. Why would Gard be here, and not upstairs? Good question. It’s not one I would have immediately asked.

Paul walked directly to the bar and took a seat. He looked at the bartender, then to the guy at his right. Sweaty, young, in a very fashionable tweed suit, though wrong for this time of year. Blonde hair falling in every direction but the correct one. He kept looking at the door, waiting, for people to pass his line of vision and walk to the hotel desk.

Finally, Paul tapped him on the shoulder. “Mr. Gard.”

The man started, then wiped his brow with a cocktail napkin and recovered. “Mr. Wojciechowski.”

“No,” said Paul, “I’m his senior associate. My name is Paul After.”

They shook hands. I received a sensory flash: sweaty palms. Ugh.

“Mr. Wojciechowski is tied up with some urgent business in Nevada,” Paul explained.

Good boy. Keep the famous Mr. W. shrouded in mystery. Clients love that.

“I understand,” Gard said. He took a drink, then seemed as if a light bulb had just gone off in his thick blonde skull. “How did you…”

Paul finished the sentence. “Know you were Richard Gard? Come on, now. I assume you’re going to pay me a lot of money to predict what’s coming next. I was just giving you a free sample.”

Damn, was this guy good.

Gard seemed impressed, too. “Care for a drink?”

“In a moment,” Paul said. “First, I’d like to know why you are down here, in this bar, instead of upstairs in the room number you supplied my associate. Seems like it was more than just getting a sneak peek at the hired help.”

“I admit, that was part of it. Actually, there’s a bit of a preface to your job.”

“By all means,” said Paul.

“Before you meet Susie, I wanted to make this perfectly clear: no matter what I say upstairs, no matter how aloof I may seem, your loyalties will remain with me completely. You will run every single decision by me. You will not move a finger without my knowing about it. Everything begins and ends with me.”

Paul nodded. Seemed fair to me, too. After all, Gard was footing the bill.

“Upstairs, you are going to meet a woman who is my mistress. I demand complete discretion as well as respect in this regard. She is going to ask for your assistance. You are going to give it. You are also going to give her the impression that you are working for her, not me.”

Paul smirked. “I am to win her confidence. And, of course, I am to report everything to you.”

“You’re a quick study,” Gard said.

And you’re a sweaty goofball, I thought.

Paul glanced at himself in the mirror, as if he could hear me. Could he?

“Now how about that drink, eh?” Gard asked. “Take a few minutes, then come upstairs as planned. I’ll introduce you and you can begin your assignment.” He placed a hand on Paul’s back. An uncomfortable jolt went through both of us. “Henry! Get this man whatever he likes.” A pug-nosed, white-haired man in a bow tie raised his head.

“A Shirley Temple, please” Paul said.

“A tough guy like you?” Gard laughed.

Paul didn’t respond. He just told Henry not to forget the cherry. Gard shook his head.

“Oh, by the way…” Gard fished a check out of his suit pocket and placed it on the bar. “For today’s meeting. I’ll mail a check for double that every week, as agreed.”

Paul didn’t look at the check. I wanted him to, but I couldn’t force his eyes down to the bar top without things getting messy. “Thanks.”

Richard was left holding the conversational bag, so he decided to leave.

* * * * *

I tuned out while Paul was enjoying his Shirley Temple and wandered back to my brain hotel office. I could have zapped myself there, but that kind of thing became pretty disorienting after a while. The more the hotel complex seemed like real life, the better.

I poured myself a glass of brain-scotch and read through a notebook of some Association notes from last year. The notes were perfect; exactly as I’d recorded them months and months ago. But the scotch was only as good as I remembered it.

I tuned back in just in time for Paul to meet Gard’s mistress.

gg  “Susannah Winston, meet Paul After.”

There is an uncomfortable moment between both parties. Finally:

“After what, Paul?” she asked, smiling.

Ugh. I hated this wench already.

“I’m charmed to meet you, Ms. Winston.”

I noticed that Paul’s hand lingered on Susannah’s. Mine would have too, believe me. I tossed back another half-glass of brain-scotch and took a closer look.

Susannah Winston had chestnut hair, fashionably bobbed to a sharp point on both sides of her prettily squared jaw. Her nose was slightly upturned, as if to clear way for her lips-full, and dark red. A man in his twenties would consider her the antidote to marriage: one single, sensuous reason to stay single forever. And a man in his thirties or forties would find her to be instant inspiration for infidelity. I noted that Richard Gard looked to be pushing forty.

Susannah was much, much younger, clearly. Large round blue eyes, and a mouth that curled upward like a smile, even when she wasn’t reacting to anything. Even doing something as mundane as lighting a cigarette. I could detail the physical attributes below her neck, but it would be redundant. I could see the death-drop curves beneath those polyester slack just as clearly as I could in a bikini. Suddenly, I was really curious to hear this story, to hear why her sweaty 40-year-old patron had summoned a bodyguard from Nevada. What trouble could she have possibly fallen into?

Actually, with a body and face like that, it was hard to picture what kind of trouble she hadn’t fallen into.

“I used to date the wrong kind of boy, and now one them wants to murder me,” she said, then wrapped her lips around her cigarette.

Well, that explained it. Richard looked away, as if he didn’t hear.

“I haven’t even told Richard the entire story, to be honest. I wanted both of your to hear everything. I’m sure it hurts him as much as it hurts me.”

Richard heard that, all right. He glanced at Susannah, gave her a warm, large smile, then looked back down at his drink.

“I’m a member of a small, yet substantially wealthy family from the suburbs of Boston,” she continued. “My father made his fortune after World War II, when he invented some sort of military tracking device that to this day is considered state of the art. I grew up in splendor, was sent to private academies, and eventually, Smith College, where I majored in Victorian literature. A waste of time, really. All of it. And I don’t say that lightly. I say that with quite an amount of hatred in my heart; hatred for parents who never showed me anything but the sunny side of life. They gave me everything I ever wanted, except an education-a real education that could teach me the way the world really worked. That’s what I needed. Not emerald-studded bracelets and pretty pink dresses.

“I received that education soon enough. The year after I graduated Smith, I spent a week in New York City with some of my classmates-courtesy of my father, of course. We stayed at the Royalton, had our pick of restaurants and Broadway shows, four star everything. It was a perfect miserable trip.”

“Yeah, I hear The Wiz is a real nightmare,” Paul said.

Richard eyes narrowed. “Now look here…”

“No, it’s all right,” Susannah said. “I guess it does sound like a pretty pathetic sob story. Poor little rich girl doesn’t get her way. But you haven’t heard the part that makes me cry, Mr. After. At least allow me that.”

Paul nodded deferentially.

“One night, my girlfriends and I decided to see the seamy parts of town, the kind we’d certainly never seen at Smith. We took a cab down to the East Village and walked into a random jazz club. I met a boy there-his name was Chris. He was skinny, his clothes were ten years out of style and his fingernails were dirty, but I let him buy me a drink. To be perfectly honest, it was exciting.”

“And sure to anger your parents,” Paul said.

Susannah looked down at her shoes. “Precisely. I was looking for a different kind of education, and here was a man who presented himself as the crash course. So I never went back to Boston. I moved in with Chris-who turned out to be a pot-dealer, a television repair shop janitor, and sometimes, when he was in the mood, a novelist. Of course, all I focused on was the novelist part-even though he never let me read a word. For a sheltered Smith girl, he was Jack Kerouac.

“That is, until he raped me.”

I’m sure she was saving that for just the right moment, because both Paul and Richard did the exact same thing: lowered their drinks, and averted their eyes, as if ashamed for the entire male species.

“Oh, he made such a fuss about apologizing, blaming the drink, his frustrations with being such an unknown, and all of that. But nothing could explain away the act. The first chance I had, I ran to a nearby diner and called my father to beg forgiveness and ask for train fare home. But my mother answered. It turned out I was too late.”

“He came looking for you?” asked Richard.

“No. He’d already dropped dead of a stroke.”


Susannah took a sip of her drink. I noted how much care she took not to leave any of her lipstick on the glass. Must be hard to take a drink like that.

“When I arrived home, I found my mother, who’d pulled a Sylvia Plath.”

Head in the oven. Damn, I thought. Double-shot. They always say that when one spouse goes, it’s not long before the other follows. It’s been my experience, sad to say.

“But then I discovered that Dad had actually forgiven me, in his own way. Weeks after I’d told him I was staying in New York, he had his will changed, and I soon discovered that I was a half million dollars richer.”

“That was all he had left?” Paul asked. “I mean, for an inventor of something as important as” He faked a pause, as if struggling to remember. ” as something for the military” I knew what he was doing, of course. He was trying to flush her out, give away an extra detail.

It didn’t work. “No, that was all he had left,” Susannah said, and took another clean sip from her glass. “The government basically stole the patent, and probably gave him a million just to shut him up. Part of me didn’t even want to take the money-I didn’t enjoy the fact that I’d basically earned through my parents death, or even that my father had earned it inventing a tool that sent thousands to their deaths in Vietnam.”

“The guilt must have been awful,” Richard said.

I rolled my eyes. Man, thank God I wasn’t the one conducting this case. I would loathe the idea of spending any more than a half-hour putting up with this drama queen.

Paul said, “But you took the money.”

Susannah shot him a pair of icy daggers. “Yes, I took the money. I had nothing. And I wasn’t going to refuse my late father’s apology.”

“I don’t think that was necessary, either Mr. After,” added Richard, angrily.

“I’m sorry if I offended either of you,” Paul said. “I’m simply trying to establish motive.” He looked directly at Susannah. “Besides. I think know where your story is headed. Suddenly, out of the blue, your East Village friend catches wind of your windfall, and takes the next cheap bus up to Boston to get reacquainted. With a fist or a pistol, if necessary.”

“Actually, no,” said Susannah, looking pleased with herself. “I never saw that boy again.”

“Then who’s after you?”

“Oh,” she said, then laughed to herself. “You thought the man after me was him? Please. No, no, Mr. After, I didn’t have Richard bring you all the way out here from Los Angeles to protect me from a scummy little painter boy. We’re hired you to protect me from a professional killer.”

Man, I thought. Professional killers were everywhere this time of year.

To be continued…

Copyright (c) 1998 Duane Swierczynski.

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